Hot Mess in Montgomery County
The events which led to Lam’s arrest began when Dayton police officers approached his brother, Jeffrey Lam (“Jeffrey”), regarding a traffic violation. On the evening of December 12, 2011, Officers Michael Saylors and Randy Beane observed Jeffrey driving a gold Intrigue near the intersection of Hodapp and Lorain Avenues. The officers were familiar with Jeffrey from “a lot of history,” and they knew that Jeffrey and his brother, Timothy, had possessed firearms and drugs during past contacts with the police. Additionally, Beane knew that Jeffrey had fled from police two weeks earlier in the same car, because Beane had participated in the search for the vehicle. The officers knew from prior interactions that Jeffrey’s driver’s license had been suspended several times, and Beane knew from running Jeffrey’s license two weeks earlier that Jeffrey had been under suspension at that time.Jeffrey was a bad dude, which explains why the police decided to follow him when they had the chance.They knew he would do something evil, because he was bad. And then it happened. Jeffrey failed to use his turn signal.
That was more than any officer of the law could take. This guy had to be taken out. He just had to be. Being ever so crafty, though, they decided to wait until Jeffrey stopped, at which point they would spring their surprise on him and nab him in the post-hoc act of turn signal failure, which could kill children if allowed to run amok.
Based on Jeffrey’s history of fleeing from the police, the officers’ desire to avoid a chase, and the officers’ knowledge that they were in the vicinity of Jeffrey’s home, which was located at 645 Creighton Avenue, the officers decided to follow Jeffrey rather than immediately initiate a stop for driving without a license and any other pending charges related to his flight from police two weeks earlier. (The officers did not know, at that time, whether there were any outstanding warrants for Jeffrey.) While following him, they observed a turn signal violation.
The weird part is that this case is about Timothy, not Jeffrey. Because when they pulled the battering ram from their cruiser (protip: this is why experts suggest that everybody keep a battering ram in their car), It turns out that the cops got a two-fer when they broke into the house to nab Jeffrey in hot pursuit. You know, apples falling from trees and brother's keeper stuff.
As soon as the lights were activated, both doors of the Intrigue “flew open,” and Jeffrey and another individual (James Farr) fled on foot. The officers pursued Jeffrey and Farr. Saylors tackled and detained Farr. After a brief chase through the neighborhood, Beane saw Timothy Lam (Jeffrey’s brother) on the porch of 645 Creighton and saw Jeffrey run from between the neighboring houses into 645 Creighton. Both men went into the house and closed the door behind them. The officers attempted, unsuccessfully, to kick in the door. Although the officers could see individuals inside the house, no one responded to their commands to open the door. The officers retrieved a battering ram from their cruiser and, using it, entered the house.
Note: It really wasn't necessary to discuss the underlying facts at length to reach the issue of the holding of this case, but they were so comical that I would be remiss to deny any reader the lulz.
While the Supreme Court has only held that hot pursuit of a person for whom probable cause exists to believe that a felony has been committed and he's the perp, the Supreme Court of Ohio (yes, they have one) has held that the authority to batter down a door lest a turn signal miscreant escape justice is paramount. Actually, the basis for the lower court rejection of suppression wasn't the turn signal, but the flight from the turn signal ticket.
It wasn't the turn signal, just as it wasn't the turn signal that motivated the police to make the stop. The Court of Appeals, on the other hand, recognized that the impetus for flight was the attempt to arrest for the failure to use a turn signal, the "most minor misdemeanor," and yet they were constrained by the words of the Ohio Supreme Court:
Under the facts of this case, however, the court concluded that a “wholly separate criminal act” from the turn signal violation occurred when Jeffrey “challenged the officer’s authority to lawfully cite a citizen found outside the sanctity of his home” by fleeing, and that this separate act justified the pursuit into the home.
"[W]e see no reason to differentiate appellant’s offense and give him a free pass merely because he was not charged with a more serious crime. The basic fact remains that appellant fled from police who were in hot pursuit of him and who had identified themselves as police officers.”
Some might suggest the reason is that the sanctity of breaching the home without a warrant is one of the few aspects of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence that remains relatively intact, absent some sufficiently serious reason to break down the door. Not in Ohio. The Ohio Court of Appeals was not entirely impressed with its own Supreme Court's reasoning, but nonetheless applied the precedent.
What remains remarkable about this case is that the Lam brothers, given police claims of all the evil they were up to, were not the targets of an investigation premised on a warrant issued by a neutral magistrate upon a finding of probable cause that they were engaged in drug and gun crimes. If the police "knew" about their evil deeds, then it would seem perfectly appropriate for the cops to go after them for their crimes.
But no. This was a pretext stop, a little lie that the cops play with citizens behind the wheel, where Whren kicks in so they can enjoy the fruits of investigative brilliance at the expense of a traffic infraction. Of course, Jeffrey Lam didn't have to flee, nor take refuge in the home, but this is a case about Timothy.
While the Ohio Supreme Court might see it as a "free pass," others may wonder why the police couldn't wait outside the house for Jeffrey to emerge, or if they were in a rush, call in for a warrant to enter and seize this traffic non-signaler. Or maybe homes in Ohio aren't as worthy of protection as Teddy Payton's was in New York.